Live From CBGB's
For their latest John Varvatos boutique, Brady Wilcox and Loffredo Brooks riffed on a legendary New York music venue
Tom Beer -- Interior Design, 6/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
At 315 Bowery, rock and roll will never die. The address belonged for more than 30 years to CBGB, short for Country, Blue Grass, and Blues. But the club where Patti Smith and the Ramones cranked out the sounds of New York punk closed its doors in 2006. After an appropriate mourning period, the space has reopened as a John Varvatos menswear store, where rock pumps from the speakers and skinny, shaggy-haired sales clerks look like they moonlight in an indie band. (Several do.) Varvatos, acclaimed for his preppy-edgy fashion and ad campaigns featuring Alice Cooper and Iggy Pop, made sure not to erase the location's grungy past. He envisioned the space as part rock-and-roll clubhouse, a tribute to CBGB.
If you're picturing a high-style Hard Rock Cafe, think again. Varvatos admits he was highly conscious of "people saying that some glossy Madison Avenue guy had come in, some flaky designer who thinks he knows rock and roll." Varvatos does know it—he grew up in Detroit listening to MC5—and he was passionately involved in making sure every aspect of the 3,300-square-foot interior would create what he calls "real credibility with CBGB lovers." The bins lining one wall, for example, are stocked with vinyl records from his collection of more than 15,000 LPs. He also hunted down rare concert posters, vintage hi-fi equipment, and classic Gibson guitars for the store.
Interior designer Brady Wilcox and architect Eric Lukenich are more than passingly familiar with the Varvatos method. Wilcox, a cofounder of the Ducduc children's furniture company, has worked on five previous projects, and Lukenich, senior designer at Loffredo Brooks Architects, has participated in three. With only 16 weeks to transform the abandoned club into a functioning retail outlet, the team relied on instinct. Plans were never more formal than a hasty sketch on a scrap of paper. Lukenich calls it "design on the fly, making decisions while walking over open joists." Wilcox adds, "These urban spaces always have their own character and points of interest—it's important not to overthink it."
There was little danger of that. When Varvatos leased the derelict ground level of 315 Bowery, it was practically gutted, lit by just two bare bulbs. "The stage was gone. The bar was gone. The doors were gone," he recalls. The rotted floor, victim of three decades of spilled beer and leaks from upstairs, had been patched together in some places with sheet metal. "At any show at any time in the last 10 years, the floor should just have collapsed," says John Varvatos visual director Tor Caracappa, who played the club many times with his band, Joker Five Speed.
Replacing those floorboards was the first order of business. Wilcox tracked down oak flooring from an upstate New York source that salvages barns and prepares the old timbers for new construction; then he developed a five-stain process that would give the new floor a dark, aged look. Similarly, wainscoting got two coats of black automotive paint. "It doesn't get absorbed like normal paint, so the wood looks as if it's been painted over 100 times," he says.
After that, the most important design decision was to leave well enough alone. The space is essentially a long, narrow box. It's still open except for a small tailoring department in back. Fitting "rooms" are simply curtained off by heavy burgundy velvet hanging from rods of reclaimed steel. A scuffed-up metal-and-wood coatrack was repurposed to display jeans. Large swaths of graffitied walls, with their palimpsest of stickers, handbills, and posters, bear witness to the club's anarchic history. Wilcox and Varvatos dispatched workers with paintbrushes to dust off the detritus carefully, like conservationists cleaning the frescoes of a Renaissance chapel.
The religious analogy truly applies. CBGB has long been a pilgrimage site for rock fans eager to see the birthplace of punk. "Even while we were renovating, you'd have kids with their backpacks, right off the plane from Germany, peeking their heads in," Caracappa says. So when Wilcox came upon a set of stained-glass windows at a Brooklyn architectural-salvage store, he immediately imagined them hanging behind the cash-wrap desk, suggesting a kind of altar. The desk itself, found mere days before the store was scheduled to open, is actually a mahogany bar—a relic, appropriately enough, of a defunct Bowery dive.
Furnishing the store involved a method not unlike the one Varvatos uses for his clothing: Take a classic and tweak it. A baby grand piano got white and gold hot-rod pinstripes. Vintage guitars are treated like objets d'art, framed under glass. A sofa and chair straight out of a Victorian bordello were painted high-gloss black and reupholstered with animal prints. Black crystal chandeliers—30 of them—cluster in the center of the ceiling. It all feels appropriate, although few of these pieces would have lasted a night in the raucous old club. As Caracappa says, "It's not a museum preserving CBGB but a celebration of the culture it spawned."
PROJECT TEAM CHRISTINA CLARK: DUCDUC. DAVID SILVERMAN; KERIANN ARNOLD: LOFFREDO BROOKS ARCHITECTS. ETNA CONSULTING: STRUCTURAL ENGINEER. ROBERT DERECTOR ASSOCIATES: MEP. PAXTON METALCRAFT: METALWORK. OMARA ORGANIZATION: GENERAL CONTRACTOR. PRODUCT SOURCES FROM FRONT MIDTOWN NEON SIGN CORPORATION: CUSTOM NEON SIGNAGE (SALES FLOOR). THROUGH GHISLAIN ANTIQUES: RACKS. RAMPARTS: CUSTOM GUITAR DISPLAY TABLE. FIVE STAR AWNINGS: CUSTOM AWNING (ENTRY). THROUGH GALLERY 84: CHANDELIERS (SALES FLOOR). THROUGH NEW YORK PINBALL: PINBALL MACHINE. THROUGH OLDE GOOD THINGS: CASH-WRAP DESK. THROUGHOUT THOUGH ENTOURAGE FLOORING: FLOORING.